Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report. I’m Anthony Day and it's Friday, 21st February.
This week Extinction Rebellion has been digging up a lawn and calling up a storm. In other news Microsoft is committing to going carbon negative, carbon labelling seems to be back and Drax claims that the UK is getting cleaner because they are burning wood, while the government is making plans to shut down your stove - you know, the one that burns wood.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon is throwing money - $10 billion - at the climate crisis, but is it enough? Political economist Ann Pettifor says that a shortage of money will never be a problem with dealing with climate change; the main obstacle is mobilising the skills and resources to do what’s needed. And the financial institutions don’t help either.
There’s a special report from the the you-couldn’t-make-it-up dept, but first what has Extinction Rebellion been up to in Cambridge?
Well, XR made headlines this week after digging up the lawn at Trinity College, a lawn which almost nobody is even allowed to walk on. This is part of an ongoing protest across Cambridge, fighting against the climate emergency. In this particular case XR demands that Cambridge University should cut its ties with the fossil fuel industry by liquidating its investments, by no longer allowing fossil fuel companies to portray their destructive activities in a positive light by sponsoring institutions, conferences, professorships and prizes, by no longer carrying out research into fossil-fuel technologies and by excluding such “destructive corporations” from careers events.
XR is also protesting at the decision of the University to sell some of its agricultural land in Suffolk to the Port of Felixstowe for the construction of a 3000-vehicle lorry park.
The protests have continued with roadblocks across the city for several days and numbers of activists have been arrested. XR Cambridge tweeted:
“Rebels have now been arrested for digging up the ecologically sterile #TrinityCollege lawn. Meanwhile if you know the right people in this country no environmental destruction is off limits. If you're really lucky you can do this [picture of open-cast coal mine] and make loads of money in the process!”
Correspondents to my daily newspaper were not happy. “If they had planted trees instead they would have made a positive contribution to tackling climate change,” said one. “Digging up a lawn releases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere,” said another.
I've written my own letter to the paper and we’ll see if they publish it. This is what I've said.
“Digging up Trinity College lawn got publicity for Extinction Rebellion but if they had merely planted trees they would have been ignored. How much more of Australia needs to burn, how much more of Britain needs to flood before serious action is taken to address the climate emergency? It’s a lot more important than some patch of grass in Cambridge.”
Putting a Label on it
Quorn, the meat substitute company, has been called the first major brand to introduce carbon labelling on its products. Not exactly true, because companies including Walker’s Crisps adopted the carbon label when the Carbon Trust launched that scheme back in 2006. (You no doubt heard about it on the Sustainable Futures Report, although it wasn’t called that then.) That scheme was closed in 2012 because of costs and lack of significant uptake by other organisations, although Tesco was involved for a time. Quorn now publishes carbon data for its products on its website, based on data verified by the Carbon Trust.
“The stats are stark. 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food, with the footprint from animal products alone making up over 50% of the industry’s global carbon emissions. It’s really quite simple: choose food that produces less carbon emissions as a step in the right direction to prevent climate change.”
They aim to track emissions from farm to fork in calculating what they call their carbon “foodprint”.
There’s been some criticism that Quorn foods are highly processed and far from natural plants, but surely anything that raises consumer awareness of carbon impacts is worth supporting. It will be interesting to see whether the Carbon Trust can be successful this time in extending the scheme to other producers.
Negative thoughts from Microsoft
In a recent blog post Microsoft has pledged to remove "all of the carbon" from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975. Quite a challenge! Chief executive Satya Nadella said he wanted to achieve the goal by 2050. This means that the company aims to be carbon negative by 2030. They say, “This will take aggressive approaches, new technology that doesn’t exist today, and innovative public policy. It is an ambitious – even audacious – goal, but science tells us that it’s a goal of fundamental importance to every person alive today and for every generation to follow. MS has launched an aggressive program to cut carbon emissions by more than half by 2030, both for its direct emissions and for its entire supply and value chain. It will fund this in part by expanding its internal carbon fee, in place since 2012 and increased last year, to start charging not only its direct emissions, but those from its supply and value chains.” The company is establishing a $1 billion climate innovation fund.
Elizabeth Sturcken from the Environmental Defence Fund welcomed the announcement and commented, "But to really shift the needle on climate change, we need 1,000 other [companies] to follow-suit and turn rhetoric into action."
Greenpeace warned that Microsoft still needed to address its ongoing relationship with oil and gas companies.
News from Drax
Another candidate for carbon negativity is Drax power station in North Yorkshire. It also aims to be carbon-negative by 2030. Drax claims to have cleaned up its operation by converting most of its furnaces to burn biomass in the form of woodchips. While it cannot be denied that the plant emits vast amounts of CO2 the theory is that this is offset as CO2 is absorbed by the growth of new timber. This may be so, but it will not offset the carbon footprint of the construction and use of the pelleting plants, new trains and harbour facilities needed to transport the woodchip from the United States.
Some would argue that if you don't burn the wood it will lock up the carbon for years. It will of course eventually be released as the wood rots, but this will take very much longer than if you throw the wood into a furnace. A Chatham House report described most wood energy schemes as a 'disaster' for climate change. “Current biomass policy frameworks are not fit for purpose,” they say, “and require substantial changes to ensure they contribute to mitigating climate change rather than exacerbating it.”
Drax will reduce its emissions by replacing two coal-fired units with combined-cycle gas turbines, by installing a 200MW battery and by implementing carbon capture and storage. A pilot plant currently removes one tonne of carbon, (or is that CO2?), from exhaust gases each day. Provided government subsidies continue, the plan is to scale this up to 8 million tonnes per year. This compares with current CO2 emissions of some 22m tonnes per annum. It’s difficult to see how the plant can go carbon-negative on this performance.
There are increasing concerns over the level of particulates in the atmosphere, or soot as we used to call it, and the effects that they have on the health of everyone, particularly the young and the very old. As part of its clean air strategy the government announced last year that there would be restrictions on the sale of woodburning stoves, which are a major contributor to poor air quality in cities and particularly in London. Given that winds blow across the whole country, wherever you light your stove you'll be contributing to somebody's pollution. The plan is that from 2022 only stoves which meet strict emissions regulations may be sold. There may also be restrictions on the type of wood which can be sold for burning and existing stove owners will be encouraged to install new ones.
Local authorities may be given powers to enforce bans on burning on days when pollution is particularly acute though I can’t think that that will be easy to enforce.
It's been calculated that you are 24 times as likely to die from the effects of air pollution as from a car crash. In the face of statistics such as these the Scottish government is considering a total ban on all woodburning stoves.
It is not clear whether the present Westminster government intends to enact the clean air strategy. Will it apply to Drax, I wonder?
Bezos Earth Fund
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, announced this week that he would allocate $10 billion to dealing with the climate crisis. The new Bezos Earth Fund will begin issuing grants this summer.
He said: “Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet. I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.”
“This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs — any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world. We can save Earth. It’s going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organisations, and individuals.”
$10 billion is an awful lot of money, but apparently only just under 8% of the Bezos fortune, given that he is the richest man in the world. Is it enough? Not on its own, when some are estimating the total cost of saving the world at some $90 trillion, but it’s a useful catalyst. Some have reacted by saying that Bezos certainly should take action as Amazon’s carbon footprint is as large as that of a small country, although Amazon has joined the aspiring carbon-neutral club with a target date of 2040.
Others are concerned that so much money can be controlled by just one individual, but at least we can be grateful that he’s making responsible use of it.
But will we have enough money, the vast sums needed to counter the climate crisis?
Green New Deal
Ann Pettifor, political economist and architect of the Green New Deal, certainly thinks so. In a recent presentation entitled “We can afford what we can do: how to pay for the Green New Deal” her message was that financing the world away from fossil fuels was entirely affordable.
The cost has been estimated at $90 trillion over 10 years, which is an enormous sum, but climate change caused losses estimated at $320 billion in 2017 and greater amounts in subsequent years. Tackling the climate emergency will be expensive, but doing nothing will be very expensive too.
Where will the money come from? Ann Pettifor’s position is that the ability to spend is far more difficult than finding the money. She explained that the source of money has nothing to do with gold, silver or bitcoins. All money originates as credit, and bank lending creates deposits. While cash is a convenient measure of money, money itself is merely a promise. Countries with a strong currency have a banking system, a legal system to enforce contracts and loan agreements, an accounting system and a government which is able to raise taxes. It is the government’s ability to raise taxes that is the ultimate collateral and guarantee that the promises behind credit will be kept.
In her book, The Production of Money, Pettifor quotes Margaret Thatcher saying that every pound of government expenditure had to be matched by a pound of taxation. She explains that this is wrong and gives the example of Ben Bernanke, then governor of the US Federal Reserve. In a TV interview in 2009 he explained that the $85 billion that he had just advanced to prevent the collapse of insurance group AIG was not taxpayers’ money. It was credit that had been created by tapping the number into the Fed’s computer to extend AIG’s overdraft. It was a credit, based on the belief that the US government stood behind its promise. Equally it took $900 billion to stem the financial crisis of 2007-8 - again with money created in the books of the central banks.
Both in her book and in her lecture Ann goes on to recount the conflict between governments and the financiers for control of money since the start of the 20th century. At the Bretton Woods Conference, money - exchange rates and interest rates - was taken back into public control through regulation. This lasted until the early 70s when the bankers lobbied for the controls to be removed, leading to the liberalised situation we have today. Only 5% of money is now created by central banks: the other 95% is created by commercial banks and financial institutions. The bankers’ argument for deregulation was that the market would set interest rates and the market would balance everything out. This was revealed as a fallacy in 2007-8. The public sector bailed out the banks but imposed no regulations in return. The bankers have returned to business as usual, now knowing that if it all goes wrong again the public will pick up the pieces.
Meanwhile governments refuse to create public money for public investment leading to austerity which depresses demand. The value of assets - artworks, racehorses, premium property, bullion, cash - rises meaning rents or hire charges rise. And this makes the asset-holders more wealthy while the rest of society becomes poorer and inequality grows.
What are the implications of this for the Green New Deal? Ann Pettifor says that we need system change, we need a structural change to the financial system and the economy, we need an end to inequality, we must substitute labour for carbon because there won’t be enough rare earth metals to build enough robots to replace humans and we need to abandon the delusion of infinite growth. The Green New Deal must be based on needs, not wants. There must be international co-operation, not globalisation and an end to the ability of multinationals to generate profits but pay no taxes. The government, not the bankers, should control interest rates and regulate investment so that funds are used for productive purposes and not for speculation. We need a carbon budget as well as a financial budget, to keep the world economy within the carrying capacity of the planet. Under the present system, in the three years following the Paris Agreement bankers JP Morgan were able to lend $169 billion to the oil industry, while Exxon spent $3 billion on oil exploration.
There will be no difficulty in raising money for the Green New Deal, she says. The difficulty which governments must urgently address, is finding the plans, the skills and materials needed to deal with the climate emergency.
Ann Pettifor emphasises that the general public do not understand the mechanics of money and the way in which the financial sector has effectively defrauded them. There has therefore been little if any backlash against the bankers. Instead people are turning to demagogic leaders who promise to right their wrongs, just as they did in the 1930s.
“System Change not Climate Change” is a popular slogan at climate demonstrations. Actually achieving such change will not be easy.
Incidentally, Ann Pettifor is recognised as having predicted the financial crisis - and being ridiculed for it - in 2006. She believes the next financial crisis is not far off.
…from the you-couldn’t-make-it-up dept, the BBC reports that French ski slopes are running out of snow. A consequence of global heating perhaps? No problem! The Luchon-Superbagnères resort in the Pyrenees has arranged for around 50 tonnes of snow to be dropped on its slopes - by helicopter. So that’s all right, then.
And that’s it…
…for another Sustainable Futures Report. Thank you for listening and thank you for your support. Listener numbers are climbing again after the reduced number of episodes in January and February. As you will know there are no advertisements, there is no sponsorship or subsidy behind the Sustainable Futures Report. I'm grateful to my patrons who support the hosting costs of this podcast through their regular subscriptions via Patreon. You too can be a patron from as little as $1 per month and you’ll find the details at www.patreon.com/sfr.
That is it for this week and there will be another episode next week. At this stage I have no idea what it will be about, but I have five requests from various experts to be interviewed on a wide range of topics. Listen out for them in the next few weeks.
I’m Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.
Cutting the Carbon
Quorn to be first major brand to introduce carbon labelling
Plenty of Money
Ann Pettifor has written “The Production of Money: How to Break the Power of Bankers” and “The Case for the Green New Deal.”